Jim France bullish on sports-car racing's growth
IMSA Chairman Jim France took time after Saturday’s drivers meeting to meet with the press before the Rolex 24 At Daytona green flag. With a 47-car field and a grid full of the world’s most accomplished drivers, this weekend’s 57th edition of the race is highly anticipated.
France, the longtime series executive – and son of IMSA co-founder Bill France Sr. – noted the significance of this season in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. NBC begins its six-year television partnership with the series, Michelin is starting a multi-year deal as the “Official Tire of IMSA” and this week track records were set and racing champions honored.
“I think my father would be very, very proud, and [co-founder] John [Bishop], with the growth of the sport and sports car racing and its significance in the U.S.,’’ said France, also the chairman and CEO of NASCAR. “It’s a global racing platform that in the U.S. probably hasn’t had quite the attention as open wheel or the NASCAR stock-car racing has in the past, but I feel that’s changing, and this event was started by my father. He was a global motorsports guy, and he truly wanted this track here to be an international icon for motorsports when he built it.
“This sports car event is a cornerstone, a key part of that. When you see the drivers and the teams and the manufacturers, and most importantly the media that are in this room that come from all over the world to cover this event and be a part of it over its history, it’s really impressive.’’
France acknowledged the star-studded grid that this year will include past Formula 1 stars such as Fernando Alonso and Rubens Barrichello, past NASCAR stars such as Juan Pablo Montoya and AJ Allmendinger, and several Indy 500 winners such as three-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves and five-time and reigning IndyCar champion Scott Dixon, who earned the 2008 Indy 500 win.
“If you … look through the results on that thing, Dan Gurney won it,’’ France said. “I think A.J. Foyt might have been last. Roger Penske ‑‑ just go through the names that are in there, Jim Clark, just the names from around the world, Rodger Ward, Indy winner, there was that ‑‑ kind of where we’re back to today where you have really great drivers coming in.
France told a story of a recent discussion with 2007 Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice.
“He was running here, and he made this great comment to me,’’ France recalled. “He said, it’s unbelievable out there, I’m running up in the corner at 3:00 in the morning, I’m looking at who I’m racing over here, and it’s all these great guys from all over the world that are Formula 1 drivers or sports car drivers or whatever.
“He said, from a driver’s standpoint, it’s just a great experience. It’s that kind of feeling that you get from people that tell you how special this event is to everyone.
“And I think we’re going to have another barn-burner over the next two days here.”
Reflections from Bishop, Raffauf: The International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) is celebrating its 50th anniversary season this year, and to note the milestone, IMSA co-founder John Bishop’s son Mitch and longtime IMSA official Mark Raffauf spoke with reporters about the highs and lows, ebbs and flows, that have distinguished the series for multiple generations.
Asked what he considers to be perhaps the “best era” in the five-decade-old existence, Raffauf – the series’ senior director of race operations – didn’t hesitate. The Rolex 24 pole-winning DPi car, the No. 77 Mazda Team Joest Mazda DPi, broke a 26-year-old track record on Thursday that was set by P.J. Jones in the No. 98 Toyota GTP car.
“There’s obviously eras that are dictated by the regulations, as you know,’’ Rauffauf said. “I think the most innovative period was certainly the GTP era in the ’80s because the box within which we played was quite large, and it allowed it. It’s not the same today.
“That doesn’t mean the innovation is any different when you look at the track records set this weekend by a car that weighs about the same. It has quite a bit less horsepower, much smaller tires and a lot less aerodynamics. Granted, it took 26 years to break the GTP record here, but there’s an example of innovation; cars are going just as fast with a lot less of that.”
‘No regrets’ for Scott Pruett: Five-time Rolex 24 overall winner Scott Pruett is serving as the race grand marshal this weekend and, he conceded, it is a new role that he’s having to get used to.
“There is that transition point for me right now,’’ Pruett said with a smile.
The 10-time Rolex class winner concluded a 50-year career after competing in last year’s Rolex 24. He is a veteran of sports cars, IndyCar and NASCAR, and is one of the most popular drivers of his generation. Preparing for his first year of retirement from competition was something Pruett admits was challenging initially.
“My whole life, you get to New Years and you’re making plans for Daytona, preseason test, the Roar before the 24, you’re looking at New Years and that transition point of getting back in a race car, getting going and preparing for the Rolex 24,” said Pruett, 58. “When I got to New Years this year and I wasn’t planning on going or arranging everything to get to Daytona, I think that was the first realization I had that this has changed. That flood of emotion across the board came in. Did I make the right decision? I really want to get in a race car. I could go back and win another one. Then I settled back down and was like, you made an incredible decision to make my last here at Daytona. I have no regrets.”
Chip Ganassi sizes up competition: Even the Rolex 24’s winningest team owner, Chip Ganassi, said this week that this may be the most competitive Rolex 24 field in recent memory. Ganassi teams have six overall victories in the race. Its class win last year in the Rolex marked the organization’s 200th overall victory.
In 2011, Ganassi’s teams finished first and second overall and the Rolex trophy wrapped up a historic run that featured the team winning the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400 in 2010.
Yet even with that kind of track record, Ganassi says his organization realizes the tough competition this weekend.
“It’s more robust every year,’’ Ganassi said. “While a lot of these teams are the same teams, they’ve had three or four years of being here and they understand what it takes. Fortunately or unfortunately they all work in the offseason to come back and win. Everyone makes gains, you don’t know whose made more. It’s going to be an interesting race. There’s a lot of fast cars.
“I think we can win, but I think it’s going to take a lot of things to happen. For us to win we’re going to have to have a perfect race. It can be done, but it’s going to be a lot tougher this year than in past years.”
Ganassi’s No. 67 Ford GT rolled off the grid Saturday third in the GTLM class. The No 66 Ford GT started sixth in class.
Corvette Racing’s humanitarian efforts recognized: Corvette Racing was honored Saturday morning for its efforts with the Austin Hatcher Foundation for Pediatric Cancer, receiving the organization’s Humanitarian Award.
“The involvement of one of auto racing’s top teams in our efforts really helps raise the level of engagement by fans, when it comes to educating them on the foundation’s mission to erase the effects of pediatric cancer,’’ the foundation’s chairman Jim Osborn said in presenting the award and recognizing the company’s generosity.
He also announced that Ford Chip Ganassi Racing received the charity’s 2018 Achievement Award for making the largest fundraising contribution from at-track auctions. Both IMSA and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta were formally recognized for their contributions to the organization as well.
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